I’m not sure how qualified I am to comment on rap music. I know if a lyric amuses me and if a beat makes me nod my head and feel good. But I’m not sure whether I’m qualified to comment on what’s a good flow or a sloppy one, or the minutia of what makes a beat cool. I was into rap music for a time in my early teens, which would be late ’80s, after friends turned me on to Run DMC, Kool Moe Dee, Whodini, The Fat Boys, and later on Ice-T, NWA’s first album, and Dr. Dre’s classic The Chronic. I later fell out of it when the gangsta thing transitioned from Ice-T’s gritty, cautionary perspective on the thug life to something a bit harder for me to relate to, and rapping itself seemed to give up skillful use of language in favor of incoherent shouting and posturing. I realize now that there were still rap records being made in those days that I might have liked, but I didn’t hear about them at the time, and my interests moved on to thrash metal, then industrial, then noise, then indie rock.
In the past year certain experiences have turned a little part of my attention back to appreciating rap music again, or at least some of it. One such experience was receiving a formal introduction to the works of Coolzey, and seeing him and his present tour-mate Raashan Ahmad perform live at Vaudeville Mews (Bru Lei and Purple Asteroid Cadillac, also on the bill that night, weren’t half bad either); another was stumbling onto an online debate on the “demise” of hip-hop, a concept I was myself sympathetic to, between a well-known music critic and a couple of little-known rappers. I found the little-known rappers’ commentary so compelling and witty that it piqued my interest in their music, especially upon finding out that their group carried the provocative name Das Racist — which I’m guessing is a reference to the “That’s racist!” Internet meme drawn from Wonder Showzen. The debate’s larger context of race comes up a lot on Das Racists’s lyrics, but in a way that isn’t clear whether it’s meant as serious commentary or lighthearted humor or both. It seems to be referenced early in the album when one of the members of Das Racist (I can’t identify them by their voices since, in a break from standard rap practice, they don’t make a point of constantly shouting their names at you) declares that he’s “sick of arguing with white dudes on the Internet.” Perhaps what makes us willing to listen to an honest, non-self-censored perspective on this subject from these particular guys is what we perceive as their outsider status in relation to it, e.g., who better to comment on America’s black/white racial dichotomy than some ambiguously brown dudes with Hispanic- and Indian-sounding names? I mean yeah, those are races too, but I guess most white people sort of think of them as “other.” They do make a point to openly celebrate their brownness right at the start of the album in the song “Who’s That? Brooown!” But this is another subject I’m underqualified to talk about. I don’t relate to most American mass culture either because it’s all made in big cities on the East and West coasts and I’m from Iowa (“potatoes!”). Also, I’m burned the fuck out on politics as of years ago.
Anyway, there’s more to these guys that one topic. Shut Up, Dude is full of giddy absurdism and wry observations on urban life. The song that Das Racist initially made a splash with, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” is on here, and there’s been a lot made of it being some kind of commentary on rampant consumerism. I’m not entirely sure about that myself — much of the lyrics seem to be of a nonsensical or self-deprecating bent — but it’s a great track both for its infectiousness and for being the first time somebody has taken that rather funny phenomena of combination fast-food joints that started popping up a few years ago (I myself have eaten at both a combination Long John Silvers and A & W, and a combination Long John Silvers and KFC where I’m pretty sure they shared a fryer) and made it the central subject of a song. The song seems to center around a story line of two guys who are trying to meet up, each asserting to the other over their cell phones that they are at a particular combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, yet who somehow keep missing each other in the crowd.
Shut Up, Dude, like its follow-up Sit Down, Man, was released as a free download and bills itself as a “mixtape” but I think this classification is probably just a bit of slippery legalism to get around the US’s draconian legal stance on sampling (see Copyright Criminals sometime if you haven’t already). Let’s be real, these are collections of original songs. They’re albums. I have yet to really get cozied up to Sit Down, Man, but Shut Up, Dude is definitely one of my favorite albums of the year. Even though at times it just sounds like they’re free-associating, spitting out anything that sort-of rhymes with no regard for narrative or subject, what I can’t shake about the album is how I have so much darn fun listening to it. There’s a couple of kinda dopey weed-rap bits near the end but even those are delivered with Das Racist’s trademark literate humor over some pretty tasty beats. And I, too, am a fan of the $1 24-ounce cans of Arizona iced tea. I’d been looking for an artist or three to come around and bring the fun back to rap, and these guys delivered.